by Lou Mancinelli
The style of Mt. Airy painter, illustrator and writer Mark Mattson is a style that straddles a few worlds. For the past nine years Mattson has owned Mark T. Mattson Studio where he serves as artist, art director, editor and designer. In addition, he works with various clients on design campaigns and in other creative capacities.
Mattson blends fine and pop art. His work is the kind that can present an argument among art critics: can cartoon characters and comic book-like creations be considered fine art? Can painting a face on a lollipop on a well-toned canvas be considered fine art?
At this year’s seventh annual Mt. Airy Kids’ Literary Festival, Mattson, 37, hosted a drawing workshop where he helped kids conjure up and paint animate subjects out of inanimate objects. For the past two years Mattson has also created the festival poster.
“It’s basically drawing things that don’t belong,” said Mattson about the class during an interview last week. (The festival took place from Friday, May 17, to Sunday, May 19, at Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane, and Color Book Gallery, 6353 Germantown Ave.)
Drawing things that don’t belong, and making inanimate objects come to life is a niche Mattson, a classically trained artist, has worked in for more than 10 years. It was a chance job in Chicago where he worked as a character and story developer for a video game company that spurred and solidified Mattson’s explorations into anthropomorphism, attributing human characteristics to nonhuman objects, like a bench or a hot dog.
“Fine art is so fractured now that it can mean so many things,” said Mattson. “But a lot of classical people” wouldn’t consider styles that give life to nonhuman objects like cans or comic book-like characters fine art.
“For me that was the thing,” he said, “always being between different genres and different modes of creativity.”
Mattson was raised in a family that moved around a lot. His father worked as an architect and followed the work. The family lived in South Dakota, near Austin, Texas, North Carolina and Ohio.
The Mt. Airy illustrator studied at Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio. He graduated in 1998 and for one year in 1995 studied art, animation and film at New York University. While in art school, he was challenged to mimic and recreate the work of masters. After school he became more interested in painting less traditional subjects.
Mattson wallowed for a bit after he finished school and lived at home in Chicago. Two years after graduating, he took a job as an art director for J. Walter Thompson, an advertising agency in Chicago. But creating ads for selling sausages failed to keep his attention and seemed to be a waste of his creative talent. He stayed for less than a year.
“At the time I was very high-minded about what I thought artwork and art should be,” Mattson said. He now chides himself and says that was a “stupid” perspective.
Around the same time he left the job, a friend invited him to join him at Cognitive Concepts, an educational video game development company. There Mattson helped developed a game still in use called GameGoo. It’s also where Mattson flirted more with creating characters, sometimes out of unexpected objects, at work as well as in his private painting.
He also met his future wife, Jean-Claire, at Cognitive Concepts, where the two worked together creating games. They were married in 2003. Their daughter, Bernadine, now a nine-year-old Springside Chestnut Hill Academy student, was born that same year.
Mattson was always interested in animation, and in 2004 when his wife’s job for Comcast brought the family to Philadelphia, he started to focus more on developing an animated sort of fine art he calls pop surrealism, a term he says does not actually exist. It’s a “combo of high-brow and low-brow art mixed together.”
Words also inspired him. So did comic books and cartoons. Mattson “thought there should be kind of a marriage between the two … fine art and words. That’s when I started to do art shows of really twisted pictures.”
Mattson has exhibited his work locally at the High Point Café, Allens Lane Art Center, Mt. Airy Contemporary Art Space and Jean-Jacques Gallery, all in Mt. Airy, as well as the Cheltenham Arts Center, Third Street Gallery in Old City and many others.
His paintings on his studio website are unexpected, painted by a talented hand and colored by an eye with a sense of the comfort of muted offsetting tones. There is a minimalism and dissoluteness. A hot dog and a bun look away from one another on separate sides of the canvas between a blue sky. Should they get together? A fried egg and a purple piece of bacon set on what might be a green table seem accepting but unsettled. Is it really morning?
There are also his expressive illustrations by Mattson in children’s books. While he lived in Chicago, Mattson also worked for Publications International. There he was like a ghost illustrator and created many book layouts and illustrations for books like a Sesame Street series that never included his name.
Mattson also teaches part-time art classes at Greene Street Friends School. He developed the picture of the school’s mascot. There are also plans for him to work as the illustrator on “Emic Rizzle, Tinkerer,” a middle-grade novel about a 12-year-old girl whose grandfather was a World War II spy. The book was written by second grade SCH teacher Mary Ann Domanska, also a Mt. Airy resident.
Many times an individual will see Mattson’s work in a gallery or online and contact him for other types of work. That type of connection has been an important element contributing to the longevity of his studio and freelance career.